Buffy Sainte-Marie Discusses Free Speech, Songwriting with Students

Buffy Sainte-Marie speaks to students at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn. on Thursday, September 19, 2015. (American Songwriter / John Connor Coulston)
Buffy Sainte-Marie speaks to students at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn. on Thursday, September 19, 2015. (American Songwriter / John Connor Coulston)
Buffy Sainte-Marie speaks to students at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn. on Thursday, September 19, 2015. (American Songwriter / John Connor Coulston)

Legendary singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie discussed her career and free speech with Middle Tennessee State University students Thursday afternoon.

Saint-Marie, who received the Americana Music Association’s Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music Award Wednesday night, sat down for a Q-and-A with Dr. Gregory Reish, the director of the Center for Popular Music archive at MTSU, that touched on the key points in her career, including the fall out from controversial protest songs such as “Universal Soldier,” “My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone.”  The songs’ anti-government lyrics paired with several outspoken interviews led Sainte-Marie to be blacklisted by industry professionals.

“The songs themselves didn’t get me in trouble,” Sainte-Marie said. “But all of the sudden I had magazine covers and stories; I was on The Tonight Show; I was doing a lot of big-time TV and shooting my mouth off about things like [the Vietnam War] that [the government] said wasn’t happening.”

“There is a big difference between the show and the business,” she continued. “Sometimes you can be writing the most brilliant beautiful songs in the world and you just can’t get it by the business people in the record company, but don’t stop writing them. Don’t take my experience as advice to not write outspoken, passionate songs.”

The 74-year-old songwriter, who won an Academy Award for and Golden Globe for Best Song in 1983, continued this encouraging sentiment throughout the session, noting that many young people today have the same mindset as those in the folk movement of the 1960s.

“The closest we’ve gotten to the repeating the ’60s is now because of the internet,” Sainte-Marie said. “Students had discovered our brains, we weren’t going to somebody’s damn war so they could make a fortune and we could get dead, we were sticking up for our brothers who didn’t wanna get drafted and somehow the cat got out of the bag and everybody figured out that you don’t have to go to music school to learn how to play the guitar and write a song and express yourself.”

Sainte-Marie urged students to embrace their talents and persevere despite adversity they may face from others or even themselves, just as she has done throughout her 50+ year career.

“Encourage yourself. That kind of god-given inspiration can just sustain you for you whole life, certainly as a songwriter,” she said. “Encourage your peers and your friends, think beyond the genres and the boxes that you happen to grow up in.”

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